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The crusaders

January 13, 2013

The battle to save green spaces continues in the face of adversities

Margalla In the early 1980s, one of Pakistan’s most senior statesmen and former interior secretary general, Roedad Khan, moved to the capital city of Islamabad. Incredibly fond of hiking and trekking and enjoying the fact that the picturesque Margalla Hills were “right at your doorstep!” he was dismayed to discover that the much-treasured national park was being shamelessly exploited.

Roedad Khan painfully reflects on how at various points in history, “influential people in the government with the support of the CDA would acquire licenses for stone crushing and quarrying in the Margalla Hills National Park.” This meant that explosives were planted at various points in the national park, destroying the mountains and adversely affecting its ecology. Some of the places he mentioned where these activities had taken place included Kalinger, Dara Jangla, Sinyari, Shah Allah Dita in the Golra area, etc. “There are important Mughal monuments in this valley,” adds Roedad Khan. “License was given to Fecto Cement for stone crushing near the Nicholson’s Monument. That continues on to this day. In a national park no less!” he exclaimed.

Erected in 1868 in honour of Brigadier-General John Nicholson, Nicholson’s Obelisk is situated at the Margalla Pass of the Margalla Hills National Park en route to Taxila.

Out of all the battles that he has won, Roedad Khan is especially proud of successfully winning a fight that spanned almost three decades. In the 1980s, the ISI had encroached upon the land of Kalinger Valley in Dara Jangla area of the Margalla Hills National Park with the intention of converting it into a residential colony for its employees. “They fenced the colony and wouldn’t allow any Pakistani civilian to enter. How can you have a residential colony in a national park?” questioned Roedad Khan while talking about the incident. He went to court against this encroachment. The ISI finally vacated the area without any condition in early 2008.

“You cannot rest on your laurels,” Roedad Khan said, “Doing this requires constant vigilance. There are unauthorised occupations that continue till today but on a much smaller scale. The two lessons I’ve learned is to never give up and secondly organise the people. Enlist their support along with the media’s and it will produce results.”

Even at 89 years of age, this former statesman and die-hard environmentalist shows no signs of slowing down.

Kirpa Life in rural Kirpa was relatively peaceful until last October, when two influential groups eyeing 13,300 kanals (around 266,000 sq. yards) of common property or shamlat brought in their foot soldiers to ensure occupancy.

While the police station concerned remained in denial of the situation, the locals — some of them armed — decided to resist the armed intrusion as well as protest by creating blockages near the Islamabad Highway.

Fearing an uproar, the Islamabad police launched an operation without involving local police. For the next three weeks, the villagers were involved in gun battles with both the groups which constructed bunkers and deployed 50 to 60 armed men with modern and sophisticated weapons.

“We were stuck in our homes with our animals, fearing for our lives, due to massive firing from both sides,” claimed a villager.

Though no arrests were made despite the police operation, the land was saved and the Rajput residents of Kirpa managed to protect their birthplace from developers whose modus operandi is to occupy the land first and make offers of purchase later.

Shehri Some might call it a losing battle but Shehri — Citizens for a Better Environment — is an NGO which has during nearly 25 years of service managed to chalk up a number of small but significant victories to save our cities from being turned completely into urban jungles.

“A park is the first place for the qabza mafia or the middleman to grab the land and sell it at a profit, mostly for housing,” says a Shehri official.

Parkland is mostly up for grabs because it is an easy way to change the electoral demographics of an area. “You can gerrymander elections by changing the electoral vote bank, not by using fake voters but by having voters come and live in the area as registered voters. How do you give them housing? You take over a park. And it’s not just parks; it’s all open land — Gadap Town, Lyari, etc. You cut it into plots of 80 square yards and build small houses; in each plot, you can house 50 people. Whether they all actually live there or not is besides the point,” said the official.

There’s housing for the people and then there are houses for God. “Quite often, the biggest encroachment on parkland and open spaces is achieved by building mosques,” said this official. “An example is the takeover of one of the biggest parks in PECHS known as Dilkush Park. The chowkidar initially constructed a little hut in which to say his prayers. Gradually, the hut was expanded and now a three-storey mosque stands where the park used to be.”

A 1969 map of Karachi shows that Gutter Baghicha was once a natural forest spread over 1,016.76 acres. Over time, large areas were carved up into illegal plots where around 300 factories now stand, while toxic waste from these factories poisons the remaining vegetation. Shehri has managed to save 480 acres of Gutter Baghicha which now function as an open recreational centre.

Then there was the Costa Livina project — a plot of land carved out of Bin Qasim Park in Karachi and given to an influential politician. In the original plan this space had been earmarked for a revolving restaurant and a viewing tower. It was a public amenity and could have been obtained on contract by any party on a 30-year lease.

However, the influential politician got away with a 99-year lease and put up a residential-cum-commercial building on the land. “When the matter was raised they claimed that the building was a viewing tower. How can a residential building be defined as a viewing tower?” said the Shehri official. The organisation managed to obtain a court stay order and a major portion of that land now lies unused. “It is up to the government to take it back and use the space as a part of the park,” said the official.

A similar controversy emerged over Doongi Ground in Lahore, a park that was given over as a site for the construction of a cineplex. Citizens contacted Shehri and, according to the official, “We managed to put a stop to it by creating a big hue and cry; this is one way through which aggressors can be made to back down.”

— Madeeha Syed, Kalbe Ali and Shagufta Naaz